29% Of fans who are following the latest news surrounding Roger Goodell think the NFL commissioner should keep his job based on the events of the past few weeks ...

[38% think he should go 34% are unsure]

... So says a poll conducted last weekend by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED through Marketing & Research Resources, Inc. The responses (collected from more than 500 NFL fans, with a margin of error of plus/minus 4.33 percentage points) reflect changing views about the game—including the author's own

On the third night of February in 2008, little-used Giants receiver David Tyree plucked a football from high in the air, pinned it to his helmet and crashed to the ground. Millions gasped in disbelief. It was not only the signature moment of the 42nd Super Bowl, not only one of the most remarkable plays in the history of the NFL, but it was also, in the unreal vacuum of that instant, fantastical and life-affirming in the way that sports can be. We caught the ball with Tyree and we fought to yank it loose like Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. We let our eyes grow wide and mouthed a silent Wow, like back judge Scott Helverson, who signaled that Tyree's catch was good. We all marveled together.

It was scarcely different for me. The hours following the game were a riot of energy. The Giants had finished off their 17--14 upset of New England, which was attempting to complete the first perfect season since the 1972 Dolphins. Little field-side cannons fired confetti, and commissioner Roger Goodell stood tall in his blue suit as he presented the Lombardi Trophy to New York owner John Mara. I raced onto the field to interview the victors as one of coach Tom Coughlin's grandchildren made snow angels in a pile of pastel-colored paper. Writing until dawn, I closed my game story for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED with that cuddly image: a little kid in the confetti. Then I fell asleep like much of America had done a few hours earlier—wasted yet entertained; exhausted yet naively fulfilled by a silly game. It had been a good night for football.

But in truth the sport was already changing beneath my feet. I will never embrace a football game in quite the same way I did that night.

As you read this, we are nearing the end of one of the worst months in modern football history, a month that could someday be remembered as the period in which the most popular sport in America began sliding from its peak. First came the Ray Rice video from inside the elevator, delivering the reality of domestic violence to televisions and laptops in a way that is seldom seen outside a prosecutor's office while making a mockery of the running back's initial punishment, a two-game suspension. Then came outrage over the fact that two defensive linemen were still in uniform: the Panthers' Greg Hardy, who had been found guilty of assault on a female and communicating threats, and the 49ers' Ray McDonald, who had been arrested for suspicion of felony domestic violence. (Carolina later placed Hardy on a paid leave of absence.)

Even as the league scrambled to formulate Shield-saving, damage-control responses to three domestic abuse cases, the news broke on running back Adrian Peterson: charges of reckless or negligent injury on a child. Again, there was startling visual evidence, and this time the perpetrator was one of the game's biggest stars, a Sunday-afternoon superhero who whipped his four-year-old son with a tree limb stripped of leaves. Peterson was deactivated, reactivated and then put on paid leave by the Vikings, the latest action coming shortly after megasponsor Anheuser-Busch publicly harrumphed over bad behavior by NFL players. On Sept. 17, Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was deactivated after also being charged with domestic violence.

This was a new chapter in football's decline, but it wasn't new to the larger narrative. Thirteen months before the Giants' victory in Glendale, Ariz., Alan Schwarz of The New York Times reported that neuropathologists had tied the suicide of former NFL safety Andre Waters to brain damage caused by playing football. The story was significant and chilling, and it played like the first wave of an ocean storm, lapping ashore far ahead of dangerous winds.

Eight years and much journalism later, there's no questioning the connection between football and brain damage, only its scope. In what's left after domestic violence in the NFL and traumatic brain injury at all levels of the game, I find little worthy of embrace. I can't help but wonder if the two are connected, and if the violence between the white lines can't help but spill into everyday life.

FOR A long time the game raced forward because so many Americans love it. I'm one of those Americans. Some of my fondest memories center on playing catch in the backyard with my father after watching NFL and college games together. I was the quarterback on a successful small-town high school team, and while I wasn't good enough to make the varsity at Division III Williams, I played on the freshman team for a memorable coach and remain friends with grown men who still revel in that experience. There are millions like me, with warm feelings about a sport now proved dangerous and possibly corrupt. When I became a journalist, the fairy tales dissolved, and I no longer cared who won or lost. But I've written more stories about football than any other sport, and for a long time it was the one game that best connected my soul and my brain. Now that passion brings me embarrassment because we know so many more truths.

The reality of brain damage has spilled into locker rooms across the country. After playing just one game this season, Connecticut quarterback Casey Cochran retired, citing repeated concussions. Cochran is the son of a zealous high school coach, a child raised with a football in his hand. Yet he told reporters, "People have to start realizing how much health means. As much as I love football, as many memories as I've gotten out of it, your health is more important. It's just a game." A week after Cochran's decision, Texas quarterback David Ash, who passed for 2,699 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2012, also quit because of repeated concussions.

If the pervasiveness of concussion research and bad publicity renders these decisions unsurprising, it's important to consider how shocking they would have been less than a decade ago, when football players still routinely played through all forms of pain. Last week Matt Suarez, a 5'7", 145-pound freshman cornerback at D-III Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was concussed in a midfield collision with a tight end during practice, his fourth documented concussion since fourth grade. Suarez loves football. "To me, it's been pretty much everything since fourth or fifth grade," he says. "I take pride in being the smallest guy on the field." Now he's being strongly encouraged by doctors and coaches to walk away. "I still want to play," says Suarez, "but I don't want to be one of those guys that gets carted off."

The breakdown of an entrenched societal institution such as football doesn't occur overnight or even over a few years. TV ratings and rights fees for the NFL kept rising until the latter reached the current level of roughly $50 billion through 2022; fantasy football and other types of gambling provided an entry point for huge swaths of the population that otherwise lacked hard-core interest. The NFL became a runaway train, and there was a voracious innocence about it all. Fans and media embraced the violence of the game; ESPN even hosted a weekly segment called "Jacked Up," which enjoyed immense popularity (and seems unconscionably tone-deaf in hindsight). Domestic abuse was occurring, but it was mostly out of sight.

Now that willful blindness is largely gone. On Sept. 15, Geoff Gass, 38, shut down a popular Vikings message board that he had run for 11 years because he was disgusted at posters who supported Peterson's behavior and brief reinstatement. The hotel chain Radisson immediately pulled out as a team sponsor, and three days later Procter and Gamble withdrew its participation in an on-field NFL promotion planned for Breast Cancer Awareness month.

Yet even with all that's taken place, much of America remains addicted to the NFL and to football, and like any addiction this one holds a fierce grip. Stadiums will not suddenly sit empty on Sunday afternoons (or on Friday nights in Texas), televisions will not suddenly go unwatched. Fantasy lineups will be filled, suicide pools will be played. Last Thursday evening I rode my bicycle past a schoolyard where 22 little boys in oversized pads smashed into one another while fathers yelled in their ear holes, surely just like their fathers had yelled in theirs.

But the game is irretrievably altered. There's no more viewing an NFL Sunday without feeling manipulated by the spectacle and wondering about the collateral damage to the players and their families. (Goodell's press conference last Friday could have turned the tide, but it served only to further embarrass the league.) There's no more watching a football game at any level without fearing for the brains beneath the helmets and the overall long-term health of the participants. Culture changes glacially, but we are all in a different place. The joy I felt learning the game, playing the game, writing the game? That joy might be damaged beyond repair.

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How closely fans have followed each issue, and how it has affected their opinion of the NFL:

Following Very Closely

50%

40%

30%

20%

10%

JONATHAN DWYER

Allegations of domestic violence

48%

Worsened opinion

ADRIAN PETERSON

Allegations of child abuse

51%

Worsened opinion

GREG HARDY

Appealing domestic violence conviction

52%

Worsened opinion

RAY RICE

Admission of domestic violence

55%

Worsened opinion

RAY MCDONALD

Allegations of domestic violence

50%

Worsened opinion

* Of those who follow the story very/somewhat closely

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Fans were asked: Over the past two years, are you spending more, less or the same amount of time watching NFL games compared with what you did before that?

36% More time watching NFL games

56% About the same amount of time

8% Less time watching NFL games

[NFL interest level: Up or down versus last season?]

32% Increased

9% Decreased

59% Same

44% of female fans say they have watched the NFL more often in the past two years than they did before that.

GOODELL'S FEMALE APPROVAL RATING: ONLY 20% WANT HIM TO STAY

If your son wanted to play tackle football, would you let him?

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(Those without kids were asked to respond theoretically.)

15% Said No

85% Said Yes

91% of those who had played tackle football themselves said yes.

What effect have recent studies and news stories about the long-term health risks of head injuries to football players had on your interest in the NFL?

66% No effect

26% Less interested

8% Not aware of these studies / stories

Only 38% of fans were familiar with the degenerative brain disease CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

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Which of the following ways will you watch NFL games this season?

97% Television

25% Computer

12% Tablet

11% Smartphone

21% In person

94% said they will watch most often on TV.

Just 5% will choose to watch most often on mobile devices or on a computer.

How important is it to you that the NFL addresses each of the following issues?

Issues below are ordered from most to least important

EXTREMELY IMPORTANT

Off-field violent crimes by players

Head injuries affecting current/retired players

PED usage

Inadequate/inconsistent disciplinary policies

Abuse of pain meds or other prescription drugs

VERY IMPORTANT

Cost of attending games

Lack of leadership from commissioner's office

Injuries that keep star players off the field

Contribution to violence in society

TV blackout rules

Commercialization of football

SOMEWHAT IMPORTANT

Lack of parity among teams

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37% OF FANS WOULD SUPPORT LEGISLATION TO LEGALIZE GAMBLING ON THE NFL.

In the past two years, which NFL activities have you participated in for money?

18%

Played fantasy football

16%

Bet on a game with a close associate

14%

Participated in a Super Bowl boxes pool

13%

Participated in a pick 'em or survivor pool

8%

Bet on a game through a bookie, sports book or gambling website

63%

None of these

At what point do you believe an NFL player should be suspended if he is implicated in a violent crime?

36%

After being convicted

13%

After all legal appeals have been exhausted and still found guilty

16%

After being arrested

28%

After being formally charged

6%

Unsure

1%

Never

46% of fans believe that NFL players are not good role models.

Ndamukong Suh: Fined four times in five seasons.

Asked whether they think NFL players are better or worse role models than athletes in other leagues, more fans said "worse" in comparison with all but the NBA.

21% NBA

26% MLS

32% MLB

27% NHL

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Fans think an average of 34% of all active NFL players use PEDs.

22% of all fans say they are less interested in the NFL because of this.

Do you think an NFL player should be suspended if he tests positive for any of the following drugs?

Marijuana

85%

Unprescribed amphetamines, such as Adderall

85%

Testosterone or HGH

90%

LSD, ecstasy or other hallucinogens

93%

Cocaine

94%

Steroids

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48% of fans opposed expanding the NFL season to 18 games.

25% of fans said the Washington Redskins should change their team name.

79% said they did not consider Redskins an offensive name.

10% of all fans considered the name Redskins "very offensive."

40% of fans said they believe that in 20 years, the NFL will not closely resemble today's game in terms of rules regarding contact and player equipment.

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Fans were asked: In general, do you support or oppose using taxpayer dollars to fund building NFL stadiums?

STRONGLY SUPPORT 4%

SOMEWHAT SUPPORT 13%

UNDECIDED 21%

SOMEWHAT OPPOSE 24%

STRONGLY OPPOSE 38%

34% of fans said the events of the past month regarding NFL player conduct or the commissioner's office have negatively impacted their stance on public funding for NFL stadiums.

68% of fans were not aware, before taking this survey, that the NFL is classified as a tax-exempt entity (page 28).

85% of fans don't approve of this.

PHOTOSETH WENIG/AP PHOTOMARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS PHOTOMATTHEW EMMONS/USA TODAY SPORTS PHOTOEVAN PIKE/CSM PHOTOTOM DIPACE PHOTOMARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTONYCRETOUCHER/GETTY IMAGES (MONEY) PHOTOREBECCA COOK/REUTERS (SUH) PHOTOCOURTESY OF NFL (REDSKINS LOGO) PHOTOAL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TACKLE) PHOTOJED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LEVI'S STADIUM) NINTEEN CHARTS EIGHTEEN ILLUSTRATIONS
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)